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Transcript of: A Few Stray Points about Nonduality, with Jake Orthwein


From the Deconstructing Yourself Podcast

Here’s the original audio recording: A Few Stray Points about Nonduality with Jake Orthwein. 

Michael Taft: Hello and welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for meta-modern mutants interested in meditation, hardcore Dharma, neuroscience, the Global Weirding, Tantra, nonduality, awakening, and so much more. My name is Michael Taft, your host on the podcast, and in this episode, I’m being interviewed by Jake Orthwein. I wanted to talk about a few important and somewhat random points on the topic of nonduality. And so I felt that Jake, who kind of knows a lot about it would be the perfect interlocutor to help me unpack this fascinating topic. Jake Orthwein is a filmmaker based in Santa Monica, California, and a Dharma student of mine. You may have seen his YouTube video entitled “How Politics Became Pro-Wrestling.” And he’s currently working on a series of films surrounding meditation, psychedelics, and predictive processing. And so now without further ado, I give you the episode that I call “A  Few Stray Points About Nonduality,” with Jake Orthwein.

Michael Taft: Jake, welcome to the Deconstructing Yourself podcast.

Jake Orthwein: Very honored to be here, Michael, thank you.

MT: It’s great to have you here. So as you of course know, we’re gonna flip the roles, and I’m gonna have you asking me questions. So I’ll just surrender the floor. You’re the MC. Take it away, Jake.

JO: Okay, so with this background topic, we’ve got in mind of nonduality, I guess the first place to start might be: when this term nonduality gets used what two things are being claimed to be not-two or nondual?

MT: Yeah, great question to start out with, because actually, it’s probably the most important question. What nonduality are we talking about? And it turns out that this is a point of tremendous confusion because the term has clout and the term has recognizability. It’s got some pizzazz behind it and so people want to use it. But it turns out that they use it in different ways to mean different things. And, most fundamentally, are talking about actually different nondualities. And so first of all, we could say, obviously, if there’s a duality, you need two things. And as you said, which two things are apparently dual, but we’re saying are not dual? And I think that that’s something that we’re going to be unpacking throughout the course of this interview. 

But some really important things that could be nondual are different than all the many things that could be said to be nondual. So if we took any list of mundane dualities, or mundane sets of opposites; large and small, or loud and quiet, or big and little, or white and black, all of those, we could say, Okay, those are not dual. But what would we get out of that? It’s like, Okay, now we’re really all committed, we’re gonna have a new religion about the nonduality of salt and pepper. Well, who cares? I mean, maybe some chefs somewhere will be inconvenienced by the mob of our followers or whatever, but it won’t really change anything. So what dualities are really important to see the nondualness of, actual collapse the duality of and a few of them would be for example–and these are historically important–we could say the duality between purity and impurity, between God and man, between mind and matter, stuff like that. That’s where it starts to get juicy,  like important nondualities, and important ways to see that our fixation upon keeping things–let’s say the duality between sacred and profane. We’re trying to build a little wall around our sacred stuff and keep all the profane at bay, it becomes really important to see that in one way of looking at it, there is no separation between sacred and profane. 

So good question, and we’ll unpack this as we go along. But I would claim that in general, over thousands of years, especially of religious or spiritual history, the two nondualities that we’re going to most be interested in and that will get us the most bang for our buck, in terms of, be life-changing in a very positive way, there’s really only two that are central. And then there’s a little handful of others that are interesting. So the two are going to be: the nonduality between self and other; and the nonduality between, we’ll just say, emptiness and form. Although I could just as easily call that one between God and the world or awareness and the world. So those are the two. 

And what gets me out of bed in the morning is that actually those two are closely related. And they’re closely related in a hierarchy, they’re different. And as I said, the trouble is that people are using the word nondual to mean different things and think that they’re using it in a way that is similar, and they’re really not. And these are the two that get confused all the time. And the confusion is really particularly pernicious, because the nonduality of self versus other, which I will, in a very Michael Taft fashion, just call Nonduality 1, is required to have Nonduality 2 but does not equal Nonduality 2, which is the nonduality of emptiness and form. So they exist in a hierarchy and the implications of the first one are contained in the second one, but of course, Nonduality 2, the implications of it go much, much further. And in fact, they end up kind of looking like the opposite of each other. So it’s really interesting in there.

JO: You mentioned all these other, more mundane dualities from the very trivial like salt and pepper to the seemingly more important, like pure and impure for example, or of more religious significance, you could say, and I guess maybe just to relate these concepts in people’s minds, is it the case that to say something is nondual, to say two things are nondual, is to say that each thing on either side of that imagined duality is empty?

MT: Yeah, but you already said it when you said imagined. So the things on either side of the imagined duality, and that’s it right there. It’s that the duality is just something–it’s like a category that you’re making in your head or two categories that you’re making in your head that are different. So it arises in the imagination, it arises in the mind, but it is utterly mentally created. And it is a big part of nonduality, to see that when you drop that mentally generated two different categories or two different boxes thing, when you drop that, suddenly they aren’t in two different categories, suddenly, the separation between them drops away. I would say that that’s related in important ways to emptiness, but not the same thing as emptiness.

JO: Perhaps we can just start with this experience of what does it mean to say that subject and object are nondual? So what would be the investigation that one would undertake in meditation to discover that? And then, what is the phenomenal result of that?

MT: Sure, I mean, we could undertake dozens, hundreds, thousands of different techniques to notice this. But it’s actually not that hard to notice because again, what we’re doing there is dropping a set of mental boxes that we generally use to orient our perception. I’m over here, other things are over there, and there’s a distance between them, and they exist in a relationship that is the relationship of subject and object, right? So I’m doing things to an object or I’m perceiving an object and so on. So all of those are the set of mental boxes that we’re generating around and within the experience, and when we either drop those mental boxes, or stop them, or see through them, something quite different occurs. And we begin to notice and again through many different meditation techniques, or even just because we might notice it someday, if we relax in a certain way, or we could notice it through drug interactions, we could actually even notice it in various ways like being ill or hit on the head. We can notice, when those categories, when those boxes are dropped, when they release, when we let go, there’s simply experience happening. 

So I’m now looking at a lemon tree. Outside my window is a beautiful lemon tree. And in a normal frame of mind of a person off the street I, over here am looking at the lemon beautiful, shining, yellow lemon on the tree there, it’s actually wet in the rain, it’s kind of a almost archetypal lemon. And then, if I relax those boxes, if I relaxed the categorization, if I relax the system of orientation I’m imposing on this, all that starts to happen is there’s just an arising of a lemon in vision, or if I go even deeper, there’s just a yellow circle. And there’s nobody seeing it. And it’s not pointing to an object, there’s just this experience of light, right? And so that’s an example of what that looks like when we drop subject and object.

JO: Okay, so there’s a relationship between this experience of subject-object duality. And you could say, like, the reification of the appearances, because as you said, like, relaxing the fixation of lemon as lemon also relaxes the fixation of you know, I’m over here, and the lemon is over there.

MT: Yeah. And in fact, that starts to point at different types of practices, because to have a duality, as the word implies, we have to have two things. So if we relax, the fixation on the lemon as object that perforce relaxes the fixation on me as an object, so we could kind of, in our practice, emphasize the non-objectness of the lemon. And we would kind of get non-objectness of self out of that as a bonus, or we could work on the other end of the stick, and really work on non-fixation on self. And you’d start to notice immediately that objects of the world around seem less separate, seem less fixated as objects, and start to have a strong sense of non-separation. Either way.

JO: Okay, so I’m sure most of your listeners will have had something like these experiences, and so it’ll be familiar to them. But when you say, the lemon is no longer a lemon, it just becomes something like, in the limit, just light, but you know, like a yellow circle, and so on. In your experience, that’s not translating into some sort of lack of resolution or smudginess, it’s like almost in the other direction. Or you tell me. Is it more vivid? Or is it less vivid in virtue of like not having the conceptual categories imposed on it?

MT: It’s more vivid. And we could theorize about why just an arm-wavy kind of theory is that relaxing the categories, relaxing the fixation frees up some, let’s say brain power to be used for resolution. So actually, the clarity, the vividness, the brightness of the experience, goes up. And it might only go up just a little bit, but it might go up a lot. Either way, instead of losing resolution, quite a bit of resolution is gained.

JO: Right. So just to introduce this distinction between nonduality and monism. The monist claim, as I understand it, would be something like: you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a lemon and your shoe if you were to see the distinction between lemon and shoe as empty, which implies this sort of undifferentiation of experience. And what you’re describing sounds more like the sphere of experience is no longer divided from itself but everything that’s appearing in it is much more vividly seen.

MT: Yeah, it gets complicated because monism and nondualism are different, and yet they can sound the same and furthermore, you could have one without the other, but you could also have both together. So there’s the possibility of monist but not nondual, nondual but not monist, neither nondual nor monist, or both together. Right? And they sound kind of similar, but they’re different. So, monism is a metaphysical thing about what is the fundamental substance to the universe. And there’s three main versions you can have the materialist or physicalist monism; everything is just made of matter, and nothing else, the fundamental substance, or you can have idealism; the fundamental substance is mind, it’s consciousness, or you can have neutral monism; where it’s both. Or to put it differently, there’s some neutral substance that’s neither mental nor physical, but we don’t know what it is. 

So monism is like this view that there’s one fundamental substance. And nondualism is not metaphysical, like that. It’s philosophical or spiritual. And it’s about the idea that things are not divided into separate entities or categories, which, you could see that’s subtly different but importantly, different, it’s a different emphasis. It doesn’t really matter. We’re not talking about what it’s made of, or what the fundamental essence of reality is. It’s about the experience of reality.

JO:  Right. Correct me if I’m wrong, though, but I feel like you could have a monism or nondualism about the relationship of experience to reality at large, and you can have a monism or nondualism within experience. You describe the monism as saying there’s actually one substance and it’s all consciousness or it’s all matter or whatever and nondualism’s claim is being inside experience, but don’t for example, like Advaitans claim a nondualism between consciousness and the world. In other words, don’t they make the metaphysical version of nondualism?

MT: As I said, you can have these mixed together. Yeah.

JO: Yeah, so there’s a monism metaphysical and experiential. And there’s a nondualism metaphysical and experiential. You’re only defending nondualism in the experiential case.

MT: I’m not sure, I’m now going, hmmmm. But typically, people don’t talk about monism experientially unless they’re mistakenly using the word and should be using the word nondualism.

JO: Got it? Yeah, I guess it would be like a psychedelic experience where it’s all one color, you know, something like that? Yeah.

MT: Yeah. Early translators of Buddhist stuff, they couldn’t figure out the word nondual so they just use the word monism. And so that increased the confusion around this. And furthermore, why do these Asian spiritual traditions and philosophical traditions bother to use this really clunky word nondualism, when they too have a perfectly good word for monism? Well, because they don’t mean monism. That’s not what they’re trying to say. Right? They’re trying to talk about something quite different.

JO: Which is this non-separateness of phenomena when you’re not imposing conceptual distinctions upon them? 

MT: Yes, yes.

JO: Yeah. So maybe I could just have you sort of retread some of that ground a little bit. Again, because there’s this relationship that you seem to sketch between Nondual 1 as the recognition of nonduality of subject and object as being more and more evident, as you see phenomena as empty. So the direction of progress toward realizing nonduality of subject and object is toward more and more phenomena being seen as empty. Is that right?

MT: That’s one way of describing it. Yes, because of course, we can have nondual traditions that don’t talk about emptiness in that way.

JO: Okay, so with that picture of Nondual 1 on the table, what is Nondual 2, and what’s the direction of travel toward it?

MT:  So let me just unpack Nondual 1 in another way that will shed light on this issue of awareness. And I’ll just use the most common metaphor that’s used everywhere. But I’ll update it just slightly, although it will still be out of date. So let’s postulate a movie being shown on a movie screen. And on the movie screen, there is a person and a train. And conventionally, we would say okay, especially if I’m the person, I’m here, there’s a train over there. And I’m looking at it. But from the light of awareness, from the viewpoint of awareness itself, the person and the train are simply appearing in the field of awareness equally, right. They’re both on the screen, so to speak. And in terms of being on the screen, they’re not separate at all. And so seeing that person and train are not separate in any way. They’re different. This is another reason it’s not monism. The train and the person aren’t the same damn thing. One looks like a person and the other one looks like a train. So one of the main things about nonduality is it retains the difference. But we see that they’re appearing on the same screen of awareness, they’re arising as contents in the same field of awareness. And so that’s Nonduality 1. Does that make sense to you, Jake? 

JO: Yeah, yeah. And I see how that follows from this logic of, suppose you’re doing even ordinary, like dualistic Vipassana, and you’re noticing different objects from this posture of seeming like a separate subject. But anything you can notice is going to be another object. And that doesn’t mean that all those objects are actually the same object. It just means they’re all objects. And if it feels like something to be a subject, that feeling is showing up as yet another object.

MT: That’s right. This is the important thing is the feeling of being me, the body sensations, and the emotions, and the thoughts are just more quote, objects that are appearing in the field of awareness. And so when we see it that way, everything is not separate, in this field of awareness. And so that’s the nonduality of subject and object, very clearly. This is what most people are talking about when they’re talking about nonduality. And that’s Nonduality 1. And we can cartoonishly characterize it by its slogans like, I am one with the universe, everything is one, things like that. And there is a kind of an urge to call it one which again might point towards monism, but it’s not that it’s not different. We could almost say it’s all just one category.

JO: At this level, is the understanding still, that they are appearing in awareness, which is to say like there’s awareness as a context, and there’s phenomena as contents?

MT: Yes, and in fact that the separation between those things becomes a religious idea in this kind of Nondual 1. So then awareness becomes essentially sacred, mystical, the Eye of God, the One True Thing. It’s just this awakeness and everything that is arising within this awareness all the contents of awareness–and it depends on which tradition which philosophy which religion–but all the contents can be strongly shoved into the anti category. So, like they’re mucking up awareness or they’re a delusion that’s somehow leading us astray from our true nature as this awareness. Right? So, even though all the things of the world are one and united in awareness, awareness is strongly different than its contents. This would be typified in something like Advaita Vedanta, especially original Advaita Vedanta, where awareness is essentially God, and your awareness is the same as the awareness of God. So we have this god nature as wakefulness, but then all the appearances in awareness are like this delusory hallucination that’s drawing us out of our God nature into mucking around in the shit of the world.

JO: Right, so I can hear echoes of the other dualities that you invoked at the beginning of the conversation, like between sacred and profane and between pure and impure, and between transcendent and imminent, the awareness is the sacred, transcendent and pure thing. And its contents are the mucky, gross, profane things. 

MT: That’s right. It doesn’t have to be that way. And there’s softer versions of all this, but that kind of transcendental nondualism is very common. And interestingly, for people raised in a Christian context, or Christian modernist context, except for the I-Am-One-With-God part, it resonates really strongly with like puritanism. God is sacred and the world is profane. And so it has real resonances for Christians or other people in like sort of Judeo-Christian culture.

JO: Right. So in the typical kind of Christian dualistic posture, you’re still feeling like a subject relating to that pure, vast, sacred, untainted, transcendental thing.

MT: So if you’re still a subject, it’s not nondual, right? But yeah, you’re a subject relating to the transcendent deity or transcendent awareness. And then in the heretical, nondual Judeo-Christian view, you recognize that you are one with the deity. So you get things for example, in Islam, Al-Hallaj saying, Ana’l-Ḥaqq, right, I am the truth. Now we’re going into full nondualism, where truth here is another way of saying, Allah, saying God. In the Judeo-Christian-Muslim sphere, when you make this last move of, there’s no separation between anything including me and God, then then you’re usually…

JO: Soon to be murdered.

MT: Yeah, soon-to-be murdered, but it does happen. We do see this coming up again and again with mystics, because it’s there to be experienced, right? It’s not that dueling philosophers came up with this nondual idea and then decided to see if they could have the experience. It’s a human experience that people try to explain in various ways.

JO: Okay, so this is Nondual 1. And as you said before, Nondual 1 can be approached and realized in a way that doesn’t reify it as absolute. But in those religious systems where it is reified as absolute, you get this transcendental renunciative, dualistic orientation.

MT: Paradoxically dualistic orientation. Yeah, it doesn’t have to be renunciative but almost always is.

JO: Would now, do you think, be a good time to start unpacking what Nondual 2 means? And what the direction of travel would be for that?

MT:  Yeah. And the way that we’ve explained and gone through Nondual 1 makes it obvious, I hope, what Nondual 2 is. It sets it up. It begs the question because of course, in Nondual 1, we’ve ended up creating a strong dualism between experience, or awareness, and the contents of experience. But in Nondual 2, we then collapse that duality as well and emphasize the nondual nature the not-two-ness of awareness and its contents, or experience and its contents, or if we use Buddhist language, emptiness and form. And this is actually quite a bit deeper and also collapses any need for this renunciative transcendental mood because we’ve just collapsed the vertical dimension here that the transcendent move was trying to create.

JO: It occurs to me, just because it’ll be a good way to set up the practice here, we should mention maybe how this relates to your stack model. So the stack moves its way down to awareness, which, as you were saying, is another way of thinking about what it means to have this recognition of Nondual 1, but then can move its way back up. 

MT: Yeah, we would say that going down the stack model is on your way to Nondual 1, when you hit the bottom of the stack model, you’re at Nondual 1. And then you go back up the stack reintegrating all of phenomena back in. And that’s moving in the direction of Nondual 2.

JO: Is it true to say that, say you’re sitting and you’re working down the stack until you get to awareness, or in a Dzogchen context, like Rigpa, at least for the time being, isn’t that also Nondual 2? It’s just that you’re very vulnerable to dropping out of it when you get up off the cushion, and all form reasserts itself or the thought contents reassert themselves?

MT: Only if you think that the bottom of the stack is Nondual 2, and it could be, but only in a very limited way, right, because you’re not actually dealing with any contents at that point. But more likely, it’s going to be just Nondual 1. You’re going to still tend to experience awareness as a thing, and all the contents of awareness, the world, the sense of self, as empty. But as long as awareness is still kind of a thing, you’re still in Nondual 1. 

JO: Okay. 

MT: And so you’re right, you could potentially make a Nondual 2 move there, but you might not. And this is why, for example, in many Buddhist contexts, and also in the nondual Shaiva Tantra context, you’re invited to notice the emptiness of the awareness itself, right? You’re never going to reify that. But in a Nondual 1 context, you’re almost strongly encouraged to reify the awareness itself.

JO: To see that it’s not tainted by its contents.

MT:  Well, and to think of it as a thing. 

JO: The reason why it would be instrumentally useful to say reify awareness is just to be able to fully recognize the extent to which it’s untainted by its contents.

MT: There’s that but it might not be the usefulness that’s crucial there so much as the kind of religious feelings of awareness as being kind of the one thing the one substance so it’s that’s where it starts to be this idealist monism.

JO: Okay, so say I’m in the position of the practitioner who’s been doing a bunch of Vipassana and working my way down your stack, and have reached the level of awareness where everything that’s appearing, seems very wispy and empty, and I feel like the awareness that I am is totally free of those contents. How would I then start poking holes in that recognition or expanding it in a broader context?

MT: Well, the simplest way is to just invert the awareness on itself, see that it is empty. And that’s going to tend to really subvert the ability to separate it from everything. And that’s going to right away make the next moves of then noticing that everything that’s arising is not separate from the awareness, very simple. But either way, the next moves are all about reintegrating experience. So let’s say you notice a thought arising in that context. And whereas before, we were emphasizing well, awareness is aware of the thought and different than the thought, now you notice that the awareness and the thought are composed of the same material. But we could say they’re not separate. And that’s really important. 

So you start reintegrating all experience. And that’s where these other nondualities can help. They’re not the crux of the issue, but they really help. So for example, if you have a feeling that something is sacred, and another thing is profane, but you start noticing both are the creative expressions of awareness and not separate in any way from awareness, then they cannot have different levels of sacredness and profanity. They’re either equally sacred or equally profane because they’re shining with the same light of awareness, so to speak. This is where you get all the tantric stuff that seeks really on purpose and to prohibited acts and to kind of revel in the profane is to notice that that’s just an idea, right? Profanity and sacredness are another category. And so we collapse that, and we can collapse the big one, the big Nondual 1 idea, that awareness is sacred and the world is profane. Right? So that particular one can really help, you were mentioning that earlier. 

And then we just get into a profusion of techniques. But the point being there’s nothing in experience that isn’t a creative display of primordial purity, you know, is typically how we might say that, or an ornament of emptiness is another way I would say it. The idea is: its emptiness is form and form is emptiness. They’re never actually separate. It’s not to say they’re the same thing. Again, we’re not turning it all into one gray goo, mush oatmeal scenario. But they are never separate.

JO: Right. Okay, so I’m sort of seeing–you and I have spoken about this before–but if the Christian Original Sin account is in some sense about the dawn of self-consciousness, and in that very same dawn, the dawn of sin as impurity, then, like the recognition of the purity of awareness, is subverting this idea of original sin. But then the recognition that everything appears never was separate from it just gets you off on a totally different foot with respect to how tainted and horrible human beings are…and that sounds good to me.

MT: Yeah, it’s an utterly different view, right? And of course, this is the absolute view. And that doesn’t mean okay, that means I can rob, murder, steal, rape my way through life. And that’s just as sacred as anything else. There’s strong prohibitions against those kinds of ideas, of course. There’s always a way to make something into a negative version of itself. And so we’re strongly advised not to go there. But on the other hand, when we see the entirety of the world as the mandala, the sacred display of awareness itself, not ever separate from awareness itself, there is a sense in which everything is complete, or everything is in its right place. I’m avoiding the word perfect because things can still, on the relative plane, be pretty awful. But still, there’s a place for awfulness in the mandala.

JO: Yeah, it’s not granting the perfect imperfect distinction, and then saying it just so happens contingently to fall on the side of perfect that we live in the best of all possible worlds. It’s saying prior to that distinction between perfect and imperfect, there’s a sense in which it all fits. 

MT: It all coheres. Correct. 

JO: Yeah. Yeah. Because you mentioned a little bit earlier–and it’s familiar to me from Dan Brown retreats–you mentioned this first step, or one of the best first steps for beginning to move from Nondual 1 into Nondual 2 is this gesture of inversion, inverting awareness upon itself, to see itself as empty. Is that the same thing as that final quote, unquote, crossing-over instruction in the Dan Brown Mahamudra context?

MT: You know, I’m not a Dan Brown teacher. So I don’t know what they would say about it in that tradition. But that’s what makes it rigpa, which is Nondual 2. Previous to that, it’s still Nondual 1 until you invert awareness upon itself, see its emptiness. Now it’s rigpa, right? Now it’s fully awake awareness.

JO: What does jumping over that chasm feel like? In other words, like, how would one recognize the difference between: everything’s really empty, I don’t feel like I’m separate from it, and now it’s really rigpa?

MT: I think it’s different for different people and different for the same person on different days or with different approaches. But just in the spirit of the question, I’ll answer and say everything’s appearing as empty, and then you invert awareness on itself and see the emptiness of that, and it’s not trippy, it’s not suddenly hyper-cosmic or whatever. But any sense of any kind of separation is gone. And there’s a true sense of and I’ll just use Dan’s words that he liked to use of vast, spacious freedom. I think he called it.

JO: Yes, spacious freedom. 

MT: Spacious freedom, I always add the vast. Yeah, it’s spacious freedom. There’s just this sense of real spaciousness and freedom. And also, as you and I talked about a little while ago, everything just being a little brighter and clearer. Not necessarily a lot, but a little. And so that might sound rather mundane, but when it’s truly applying to all parts of experience, it’s quite profound. 

JO: Is that the same or different than the final step that you will often teach and it’s–I get that it doesn’t have to be the final step, but it helps to be this way–of seeing the emptiness of the doer or the meditator?

MT: I think that’s a different move that can often do something similar. But I would say that it’s potential that you could see the emptiness of the doer and still have an idea of awareness as a reified thing. And so we want to really let go of the reification of even awareness itself.

JO: So, as this sort of increasing recognition of Nondual 2 develops, what does it look like to sort of increasingly bring that off the cushion and into one’s life in the world, as that understanding starts to grow?

MT: Well, when you take Nondual 1 off the cushion and integrate it into the world, it doesn’t integrate, it separates. As you said, you move in an asceticism direction, you move to separate yourself from all the mundane activities because these tend to embroil one in the delusion of the world. And you’re going to tend to want to go be apart and kind of sit there and dwell in awareness itself. And so it has a real signature of aloofness, which, of course, is another way of saying, transcendental, right? We become aloof, we’re higher than it all. 

That’s not to say that those traditions don’t allow practitioners to engage in life and so on. But to the extent that you stop engaging in the world, you’re usually applauded as someone who’s kind of getting it. Whereas the Nondual 2 traditions move in the opposite direction, right, we’re going to engage more powerfully, engage with more enthusiasm, energy, clarity, humor, brilliance, whatever. We’re coming into the world as we see every part of experience as not separate from our deepest meditation experience of awareness itself. And so to slow that move down a little bit, typically, we do first experience Nondual 2 stuff, the nonduality of emptiness and form, still under a kind of meditative laboratory conditions somewhere, you’re in a retreat, or you’re in a quiet meditation in a quiet room, usually with your eyes open, because again, we’re including the world from the very beginning. But still minimalist conditions, and maybe we can only notice that, recognize this awake awareness under those conditions. And so it’s kind of in an unstable way, the minute we move, the minute anything happens, it kind of collapses. 

And so once we have the slightest view of awake awareness, which is, by the way, a big deal, not in terms of experience, it might seem kind of cool, but it’s not necessarily something that blows your doors off. But it’s a big deal, because you now know what it looks like, so to speak, in scare quotes, then most of the path becomes about just stabilizing that. And it’s not a special state, it’s not a special experience, we’re trying to stabilize, in fact, the stabilization means that we’re able to maintain that awake awareness view throughout every kind of state, throughout every kind of experience, throughout the six realms, to speak in that way. So it’s different. Sometimes I hear people say, Well, you can’t maintain rigpa, because that’s just a state and states can’t be maintained. But that’s a mistake. Mental states and experiences arise within rigpa. So actually, we can stabilize our recognition, we can stabilize our view. Or to put it in slightly more correct language, we can stop falling out of the view, because the view of awake awareness is actually fundamental.

JO: Maybe this would be a good place to bring in this distinction between sudden and gradual, which often gets invoked when talking about nonduality. How do you see the relationship between nonduality and suddenness or gradualness of awakening?

MT: So we need to add another concept in here to make this work. And that is the primacy of awareness itself. Even in the most Nondual 2 traditions, there is the idea of the primacy of awake awareness, or let’s say buddha nature or the tathagatagarbha or whatever, as something that is previous to our human experience, previous to our experience of separateness, previous to our sense of ourselves as a struggling, sentient being trying to schlep our way through samsara. And so, that idea is central. In other words, everyone listening is already at their root a bodhisattva, already at their root, a fully awakened buddha in some sense, and that that just needs to be revealed or even, to put it in better language, recognized, not that it needs to be cultivated or generated or somehow created. 

And so, once we are coming from that place, which is a very common place for both Nondual 1 and Nondual 2 to point to, the primacy of awareness, then we have the possibility of instant awakening. Which does actually happen to some small segment of the population. Vanishingly small, incredibly rare. But some people upon just hearing the idea that you’re already just this shining awareness that is not separate from anything, just recognize that in that moment, and then it’s maintained stably forever. And so that does happen.

JO: So I guess you could probably make a distinction between sudden enlightenment, in the sense of you get it pointed out, and then you’ve already done the stabilization, and sudden awakening in the sense of like a pointing out instruction that you may nevertheless have to stabilize.

MT: Yeah, those would be different. Thanks. That is an interesting distinction. But it doesn’t really impact the point I’m trying to make, which is, we now have, based on this idea that you’re in some sense already fully awake, we now can approach that in two different ways. We can approach it from the view of a sentient being, from the normal view of me as an egoic being trying to work my way towards that. Or we can flip it on its head and say, Geez, working from the viewpoint of an egoic being, a sentient being, is already wrong, already getting in the way and let’s work as if we’re already a buddha, in which case, maybe no work is needed, but you just recognize it, and you’re done. And so in a way that’s philosophically more pure, because you’re just well, if it’s true, that you’re already a buddha, then just recognize that right now. And if you can’t, then we’re still just going to honor that possibility. And our entire practice is essentially sitting there until you do recognize it, which might be very gradual, by the way, paradoxically.

But of course, the people doing these traditions are smart, and they–over the many centuries and even millennia–have noticed all these little contradictions and gotchas. And typically, it’s a little more nuanced than that, like you mentioned, pointing out. And pointing out is a really fascinating thing, which is you can take someone off the street who’s never meditated a day in their life. And in about three minutes, begin to show them, even if it’s not awake awareness, you can start to show them awareness, and to separate that from experience in a way, or to show how that’s different than their daily experience. And so if that goes deep enough you could actually have someone have at least, as you brought up, at least a mini experience of awakening, right there. And what’s so cool about that, is that you can then use that moment of recognition that they’ve experienced as the basis for their practice. For example, in lots of Dzogchen contexts, you get pointed out first, like, here’s what awake awareness looks like, you’ve had at least a glimpse of it no matter how muddy and partial and obscured, but at least, you know, the direction of it, so to speak. And then when we start doing our meditation practice, if we do it from even that imperfect glimpse, we’re still miles ahead, because we know where we’re going, in a sense, even though there’s nowhere to go.

JO: Yeah, okay, so maybe this would be a good place to bring in this question of, to what extent different traditions actually honor the full recognition of nonduality, that you’re claiming the understanding of Nondual 2? The sort of gradual approaches that we’ve been talking about tend to be associated with Theravada, where you’re doing Vipassana, at least in the beginning, from a sort of dualistic posture. And there’s this whole frame of purification and fetters and all this sort of renunciative language. Do you think the full realization of say for example, like fourth path is Nondual 2 or Nondual 1?

MT: You know, it’s a hard question, especially because Theravada has interacted with these Nondual 2 traditions for a thousand years or fifteen hundred years. And so it, itself, has changed to react to that. And you can see hints, even in the words of the historical Buddha in the Pali Canon, that seem to hint at Nondual 2, like for almost all of the Pali Canon the Buddha will only talk about Nirvana in negative terms. You know, what it’s not. It’s undying, and it’s unborn and it’s uncreated and all that. But there are a couple spots where he talks about it in positive language and says something like it’s unalloyed bliss or something, he says a few things like that, which would still potentially be Nondual 1. But there are some hints that start to sound more like Nondual 2. But I would say as a point of clarification, in general, most of the time, the way people work in a Theravada context is going to be either dualistic or at best Nondual 1.

JO: Yeah. So if you’re doing sort of Vipassana with this three characteristics frame, and you’re using anatta, the anatta being recognized there as this Nondual 1 insight.

MT: It’s going to lead to it as I said earlier, you’ve got to collapse at least one side of the duality and there you’re collapsing the self end of the stick. And so you’re going to at least get the non-separation of self and other. And emptiness arises in later Buddhism as a much broader concept because it can be applied to things that nobody, in the early Buddhist context imagined, had a self. Nobody thought a rock had a self, they weren’t animists–certainly not a self in the way a person had to sell. And so it would have been weird to talk about the anatta of a rock. 

JO: Right.

MT: But emptiness is the anatta of a rock, essentially, it’s the not-thingness of it. And so it’s a deeper and broader concept. But we can think of it as an unpacking of the implications of anatta.

JO: I think this is actually very helpful for people because one of the extremely common misunderstandings, especially in a Western context of even just Nondual 1 is that you have to get rid of certain functional aspects of your self-construct, like the fact that you can discern the boundaries of your body. There’s this whole frame of: there’s something to be gotten rid of that was appearing, as opposed to seen as empty.

MT: That’s right. And part of that is just a misunderstanding but part of it is experiential. I mean, if you do early Buddhist meditation techniques, which, by the way, I’m a big fan of, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, I think they’re powerful, there’s just more to do. But if you’re doing many of these techniques you’re doing a Vipassana deconstruction of the sense of self or whatever, especially on a long retreat, it can be the case that rather than seeing the emptiness of self, you just have it stop, the whole self-construct stops or falls apart, or attenuates to the point of absolutely not arising. And so there is an anatta, or various anattas that are partial or complete, just stopping of the sense of self in a way, which would make it impossible to function walking around in the world, but which are very impressive and intense, and do help you to see through the construction of self because how am I still having an experience when the sense of self is entirely gone? is a big insight. Right? 

JO: Right. 

MT: So those happen, and they can be then confused with the insight of no-self that comes from just seeing through the constructed-ness of it, while still having it be fully functional, which of course is what we want.

JO: Which is the distinction that the idea of emptiness was introduced to make.

MT: I think it really helps. Yeah, but also the distinction is included so that you can see the no-self of a rock.

JO: Right. So, emptiness is the blanket category, you can talk about the emptiness of persons, or the emptiness of phenomena, the emptiness of persons is not-self, the emptiness of phenomena is just their emptiness. In both cases, what’s missing is some imputed essence or independent existence.

MT: Correct. I mean, the idea of emptiness to me is–the best metaphor is the metaphor of words in a dictionary, which you’ve heard me use before. Every word in a dictionary, if you try to define the word, it is defined using other words, and then you go to define those words, and those are defined by other words, you go to define those words, and those are defined by other words that might even be a bunch of the original words. And it’s not like that’s useless. That’s incredibly useful. They exist in a network of relationships. We could say they arise dependent on each other. And we have this incredibly complex network of relationships. But you can’t, anywhere in there, find a fundamental word, the one that is real, that gives them all their realness. This is a network of relationships that can only exist because of all the relationship. There’s nothing that somehow breaks out of that network and finds itself embedded in a deeper ground.

JO: That provides a sort of fundamental ontology or like final ground.

MT: Yes. So it’s really useful. It’s not like that network is somehow–therefore we just throw it all out. But neither is it real in this deeper ontological sense, as you said.

JO: So you brought up a little bit of these positive qualities of Nondual 2, especially like the more you sort of move into the recognition of Nondual 2, the less you’re so concerned to make sure that you’re not reifying anything. And so I’m not saying you surrender, that vigilance. But the less of a threat there is that the appearance of phenomena will threaten your pristine emptiness and so the positive qualities of awareness can start to manifest. I guess there I’d just have you speak to those positive qualities and maybe what the relationship is between them and compassion or like compassionate activity in the world?

MT: Yeah, the compassion quality can start arising strongly with Nondual 1, simply because you’re not categorically separate. You’re not experiencing yourself as this atomized outside entity, but rather deeply intertwined with everything that’s co-arising. And so again, this can sound so mental and so philosophical but the experience is poignant and intense and naked and direct–it’s not mental at all–of the preciousness of living things, especially as you get a taste of the joy and freedom of living outside of dualistic categories. There’s a kind of wanting to share that with others, like, Hey, you’re trapped in your mind, you know, you just take this kind of sideways step, and the problem is gone. And you sort of naturally want to share that. 

It’s not that we can get this view of compassion as some kind of hyper-lofty virtue that we’re trying to cultivate really hard. But actually, it’s right there, it’s the thing that comes bursting forth, the minute dualism drops. This is why oftentimes, awareness is modeled, I hear a lot of people modeling it as this kind of aloof neutrality that’s somehow not only transcendent of all things but also is utterly neutral. And it’s really not neutral. The wisdom of emptiness always comes together with compassion. They’re never separate. And in fact, if they seem to be, then your wisdom is lacking. Something is not complete there. Because you’re going to continuously be pulled more and more into relationship. That’s even using the wrong verb. It’s that you recognize more and more that there’s nothing going on except relationship.

JO: Right. You were never out of relationship. Yeah.

MT: Yeah. And so that becomes central. So compassion is the right word. But it doesn’t have all the connotations I wish it did. Because it would be like, as you see the wisdom of emptiness more and more deeply, the dance of relationship becomes more and more powerful, more and more beautiful, more and more central.

JO: And the compassion, as an attitude, as you say, can show up very strongly up to and including Nondual 1 but the expression of that attitude of compassion as relationship is much more vividly realized in Nondual 2 because you’re not asserting your differentiation from the world.

MT: That’s right, it becomes central in Nondual 2. Yeah, of course, if we go to the history of Buddhism, where we get the primacy of compassion, starting to be talked about is in Mahayana Buddhism, where they also–it’s the first time they were emphasizing the nonduality of emptiness and form. So those two things seem to come together and experientially that’s certainly the case.

JO: Okay, so if our hypothetically perfectly enlightened, Nondual 2 person who’s now fully inhabiting the world, in some sense that’s almost exactly the same as they were before. And if that could have been recognized from the outset because emptiness and form were never separate. What’s different about that perfectly realized person’s experience and behavior from the person who has never heard of any of this stuff at all?

MT: Their behavior might be indistinguishable, but their experience is going to be utterly different, utterly different, right? The whole definition of what’s changed is that their experience is completely changed. And one would hope that their behavior looks pretty different as well. But it might not. And the reason I’m saying it that way is because there’s no particular behavior that we could point to and say, well, that’s Nondual 2 behavior.

JO: Right.

MT: And if we could, then you could do the thing that many people do, which is then just try to imitate the behavior. So I would say, Well, you might not be able to, but just again, in the spirit of the question, I would say, they probably are going to seem a lot more creative and engaged and be in what we might recognize as something of a flow state more often. And furthermore, they’re probably going to tend to be helpful, that’s the best way to put it. It’s not that they’re necessarily a cartoon of compassion, but they’re going to tend to be quite helpful in one way or another.

JO: And even though you couldn’t necessarily recognize from any given action, oh, yes, that’s Nondual 2 action, over a long period of time, you should probably expect them to be say more spontaneous, or more compassionate, or whatever.

MT: Yeah, if we were to get into positive qualities. And I think these are more recognizable from within than without. But they would show without. They’re going to be spontaneous, childlike, high energy, humorous, and engaged. They tend to be dynamos of energy, and also really fluid really spontaneous, and sometimes striking, like lightning, very sudden and unexpected. But there’s no mood, it’s not like, Oh, they’re always externally happy, or always externally this or that. It can look many different ways. And the more that someone is kind of rigidly seeming to have one particular emotional state all the time, it’s probably more likely that they’re acting rather than being.

JO:  They’re taking up some fixated, habitual pattern again, that mimics the–

MT: Yes.

JO: –the spontaneity. Yeah.

MT: But still, there are paths where we do just take those properties of spontaneity and compassion and flow-state type stuff and childlike behavior and all that and just start trying to be that way as much as possible. That would be, let’s say, something like Taoism, where you start working with that. And because you’re performing the qualities, with instruction and meditation, and with the right help, that does help lead in that direction.

JO: Yeah, part of the reason I ask is that in the spirit of asking, Well, what is all this nonduality business good for? I certainly understand why it would be good from the inside. And as you say, the internal experience of being unfixated is totally different in a positive direction. But one can wonder on the basis of the misbehavior of various people, specifically taking up this view, right that nothing to do exactly, and no internal government other than the spontaneity of awareness, one way of putting it is whether there is something you could say about it being a contemplative misunderstanding, rather than an absence of just other faculties, you might want to learn because if somebody misbehaves, very palpably, from the vantage point of their awakening, is there any place to stand to say they weren’t actually recognizing Nondual 2?

MT: I think there is, I think that if they were deeply recognizing or fully recognizing, it would be very hard to do any behavior that was explicitly malfeasant. It’s not that they couldn’t hurt someone. Because sometimes hurting people is necessary, for example, some kind of trolley problem or something. But the sort of just straight-up malfeasance, taking of actions that are harming others simply for gratification. I think that that directly indicates that they’re not actually fully there. But also any tradition that has survived, the traditions that are still here, explicitly say this over and over again: you don’t use this philosophy to behave badly in the world. You are not to do that. And it might be they’re just trying to protect their reputations. But I don’t think so, I think they’re saying like, just like anything else, you can misuse this. And the real area of misuse is not the people who are fully awake or fully liberated, but the people who are partially awake, who use this as license to act badly, that’s a real danger zone. And so, traditions have put a lot of guardrails in there and training wheels to make sure that doesn’t happen. But of course, it still happens.

JO: In some sense if you’re taking up the mantle of the purity of awareness to justify the ethics of your actions, that is, in some sense, just like not fully recognizing Nondual 2 because you’re claiming some place from outside the contingent law or moral code or whatever of transcendental justification. It’s sometimes–it’s just an expression of that distinction. Yeah.

MT: Yeah. And it always ends up the excuse. There’s kind of two excuses. But the typical one is: it was a teaching, the person I harmed I was trying to remove their dualism about this harm or something.

JO: I had to sleep with their wife, don’t you see?

MT: Yeah, in order to crush their dualistic attachment. And that’s a real obvious problem. The other one, which I think is kind of interesting, and almost worse, is: my awakening was so deep. I like didn’t see the boundary I was crossing. To me, that’s this weird humblebrag where you’re using your crime to talk about how awake you are. But also, it’s a deep misunderstanding. It’s the thing you were saying earlier, Jake, we don’t lose distinction. We don’t lose resolution.

JO: There’s this beautiful phrase from the tradition to capture that of like, view as vast as the sky, conduct as fine as barley flour. Yeah, all the distinctions are still there. Yeah.

MT: Yeah. So what stuff haven’t we talked about that you’re excited or interested to talk about?

JO: I suppose there’s some stuff about–in what sense is this, or is this not God? But you tell me whether you think there’s more you’d like to say there?

MT: It gets dicey. because it all depends on what you mean by God. 

JO: Right.

MT: Is it a creator being? Is it the prime cause of the universe, or what? But you can certainly have, even Nondual 2 traditions that have, some kind of relationship, maybe even a central relationship, with at least a stand-in for sort of an ultimate principle. Even if the ultimate principle is empty, it’s still the base layer. So even in Dzogchen you’ve got Samantabhadra. Right, Kuntuzangpo, who is the–not symbol of–but is the personification of awake awareness or the ground of being? Right? And there it is, and, and you’ve got plenty of Dzogchen practitioners praying to Kuntuzangpo to help them to become liberated and so on. And sure, in the tradition, they say over and over again, well, that’s not God and that’s simply a personification of awake awareness, your own rigpa or whatever, or dharmakaya. 

Eventually, all those distinctions between the dharmakaya, and the ground of being, and rigpa, and all that, which finally at one point, are all dissolved, basically in experience. But we can, from one end of the argument, say, Well, clearly they are aware that this could be mistaken for a god and so they’re saying it’s not God and it’s empty and so on. Okay, but in another way, in what way is that not God? As sort of this ultimate awake awareness that does not die between incarnations and so on, it’s there forever. And same thing is there in nondual Shaiva Tantra with Shiva and Shakti because even in Dzogchen Samantabhadra has his consort, Samatabhadri. In a way, they’re very similar personifications. 

So again, the traditions insist that these are personifications, etc, etc. And yet, it’s pretty hard to land on what might be the important difference, except the dualistic one, which is: well, it’s separate for me in some fundamental way. That’s, of course, what the traditions are so adamant about dissolving.

JO: Probably at least some versions of the supernatural one too, right, in the sense of, like, can intervene in the laws of physics, but–

MT: But boy, in all the traditions that claim it’s not God, and so on, that kind of intervention is total, but you can change anything, you can turn your body into a rainbow, you’ve heard of Rainbow Body, right? 

JO: Yeah.

MT: But there’s an even deeper form of Rainbow Body. I think it’s called Great Transcendent Rainbow Body, you can appear as a fully manifesting human being and then just disappear again and then appear over here and disappear again, and so on. And so certainly any idea of the laws of physics not being transcended is blown away by these kinds of concepts. I think what’s important here is they’re never saying that it is a separate, transcendent entity that is somehow forever separate in the way that a dualistic Western creator god is.

JO: The laws of physics are to be viewed, in the same sense as any other conceptual appearance. 

MT: Absolutely. 

JO: Now you’ve intrigued me by invoking Rainbow Body and some of these sorts of more supernatural claims that are made on the basis of these experiences. Okay, so this sense of it being deathless in some important sense, because it persists across any apparent incarnation. That is one certainly you’ve borne out in your experience. Is there a place where you say, I go this far and no further with the traditional supernatural claims? Or is it a wait-and-see? Or how do you think about it?

MT: It’s a wait-and-see, I mean, otherwise, I would claim to have superior knowledge to these folks. And while I’m not bowing to them as the ultimate source of knowledge, I’m also not saying necessarily I know better. But I will say this, I am not qualified to teach Rainbow Body practice, and neither am I currently trying to achieve that. 

JO: Right. 

MT: So I will just say, well, that’s above my pay grade. I’ll let somebody else worry about it. Yeah, because I don’t know.

JO: Awesome, okay, anything else that you think we’ve missed, or that you would love to cover? Before we call it?

MT: The whole purpose of this discussion, for me, is to help people understand that the word nondual is used very differently in different traditions to mean really different things. And so when we call something nondual, and we call another thing nondual, they might be utterly different. And they might talk about what they’re trying to achieve quite differently, and how to get there quite differently. And so we have to recognize these distinctions in order to navigate this territory with the least amount of problems. And so that’s the whole point here. Not that you somehow have to know all this to meditate, or you have to know all this to have the experience. Obviously, you don’t. Because these days, all these traditions are completely available using a browser or whatever. We might mistake them for each other or think they are talking about similar things. And you’re going to end up very, very confused. Whereas hopefully this discussion if nothing else, is going to help at least clear up a little bit of that confusion.

JO: Beautiful. I hope so. It was great fun for me. Thank you so much for having me.

Yeah, fun for me too. And I really appreciate you being willing to come on the show and ask all these questions, Jake. So thank you so much.

JO: My pleasure. 

MT: All right, man.

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